Author: Daphne Du Maurier
In a nutshell: quintessential Gothic-romance-with-a-house that ticks all the boxes but which has a florid prose that at times works and at times bores.
Summary: A plain young girl marries a mysterious and attractive widower who takes her to his manor home in the Cornish countryside. There she’s haunted by the presence of her husband’s first and late wife, Rebecca, and is harassed by the old housekeeper who for some reason seems to hate her.
Like so many people I already knew Rebecca from the Hollywood film by Alfred Hitchcock. I vaguely recalled there were a wicked housekeeper and some lesbian subtext, but little else. So plot wise I undertook its reading quite virgin.
I also read this novel with a lot of interest due to the strong similarities it has with my own novel (it revolves around an English Stately home, has an innocent-girl protagonist who does lots of introspection, it’s a psychological thriller, there’s an evil housekeeper—in my case evil governess—, it has some bouts of florid prose, etcetera.)
While to some people the first chapter is too purple, to me reading it was an absolute delight. We’ve all read hundreds of times the oneiric novel opening in which the author starts with a dream scene, and generally it feels shopworn. The good thing here is that it doesn’t feel as if the author is cheating because from the first line she says it’s a dream. Actually, the novel’s first line is superb:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
What follows is an excellent description—florid yes, but the good kind of florid—of a person entering an abandoned estate and walking along the long drive that goes from the lodge gates to the actual house. The description is so lush with detail and haunting that it perfectly sets the brooding mood for the rest of the novel. Thanks to this eerie dream, from the get go you already—like the heroine does—both love and fear the old stately home of Manderley.
All the imagery surrounding Rebecca is excellently crafted, from her elegant slanting handwriting, to all the traces (the morning room being arranged “just as she left it”, her raincoat still hanging in the flower room with her handkerchief forgotten in a pocket … ) she’s left behind in the house. Her devil-may-care attitude is also vividly described by her adoring housekeeper. All this makes that the character of the late Rebecca is extremely well brought to “life” even though she’s dead. The believability of her haunting the house and lives of the main characters is, thanks to this, a success of the novel. Only the description of Rebecca’s physical appearance is a bit lacking in comparison. In particular, the “cloud of dark hair framing her face”, which is used on four occasions to describe her hair, is, in my opinion, most unfortunate—especially because at the beginning we were told her hair is very long and straight.
If you are an English country house lover, get ready for a treat of some good old country-house atmosphere and detail. And not only the house is lavishly depicted, but also the gardens. Certainly, Daphne Du Maurier had a flair for describing plants and flowers.
The only thing that clouds this neat house & garden rendering is repetition (see below for more on this). If only she had stopped describing the garden flowers when she had done it 3 or 4 times and had stopped mentioning the staircase archway and the garden’s chestnut tree after time 2 or 3, the experience would have been far more powerful.
The final twist
The ending chapters are just okay, not bad, not dazzling. But then, in the very end, the very final twist of the last chapter is superbly crafted. This twist was not only relevant but also conveyed in such an economical way: just the final sentence of the novel is enough to introduce this twist and let you close the book with the feeling: “All right, this is shocking + it makes total sense with what in the rest of the novel + it’s very lyrical.”
And how we love our good lyrical endings.
The writer, Daphne du Maurier was a character herself—utterly chic, well-travelled, Francophile. Plus she had parallel lives with the characters in her novel. In fact, she ends up living in the same house that inspired Rebecca and was married to a grave, masculine military man much like Max De Winter, Rebecca’s husband.
Cherry on the cake: Daphne was bisexual (like Rebecca is implied to be) and had a complicated almost-incestuous relationship with her father. What else can you ask for in the department of glamorous authoresses?
The opening is excellent.
The first few chapters are quite good although not as good as the opening.
But the middle does sag.
Besides, the prose starts to get repetitious towards the middle, and its enchanting lyrical quality wears down by overuse.
The ending is not great, but it holds interest better than the middle.
You can see that Daphne du Maurier was a talented writer. But I don’t think she worked all her prose with equal intensity. After a few chapters, she starts repeating the same phrases over and over again, which is usually a tell tale sign of poor revision.
You soon get fed up with the so many times the heroine sits with her hands in her lap (7 times) or her husband stands by a window looking out into the green lawn (3 times in just one chapter) or somebody waits in a doorway with their hand on the knob or handle (7 times).
Also, as I said, I absolutely loved the first chapter, and the first paragraph is to me the definition of “haunting”. But even in that first paragraph she repeats the words “to me” when it was so easily avoidable. Read this and imagine it without the second “to me”. Doesn’t it sound better and lose almost no meaning?
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
What I said about her prose applies to parts of her action too: she repeats herself—a lot. There are so many instances of the same type of activity (caressing the dog’s ears, going out to have tea under the chestnut, … )
I know that it can be difficult to avoid some repetition in a novel some times, especially one in which most of the action takes place in the same confined house. Actually, I believe that my own novel “Alma” might be guilty of this same sin, although Satan knows I’ve worked hard to prevent it. But Du Maurier really over indulges in this.
For example, she uses a device that is quite interesting the first couple of times: a stream of consciousness of the heroine creating hypotheses about what is going to happen next. Then, after you’ve read three or four passages using this same technique, you start to find it slightly annoying. Finally, when you have lost count of how many times you’ve gone through a similar scene (but I don’t think less than 10 times, that’s for sure), you completely hate these neurotic passages of future guessing.